In What Would Jefferson Do? Thom Hartmann shows why democracy is not an aberration in human history but the oldest, most resilient, and most universal form of government, with roots in nature itself. He traces the history of democracy in the United States, identifies the most prevalent myths about it, and offers an inspiring yet realistic plan for transforming the political landscape and reviving Jefferson’s dream before it is too late.
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America's Democracy Is Eroding
The fortunes amassed through corporate organization are now so large, and vest such power in those that wield them, as to make it a matter of necessity to give to the sovereign--that is, to the Government, which represents the people as a whole--some effective power of supervision over their corporate use. In order to insure a healthy social and industrial life, every big corporation should be held responsible by, and be accountable to, some sovereign strong enough to control its conduct.
--President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
For the past year, I've been on the air coast to coast for three hours a day, five days a week, going up against Rush Limbaugh in the 12-3 p.m. time slot (eastern time). Callers from California to North Carolina, Iowa to Texas, and even a few expatriate Web listeners who've phoned in from Australia, Germany, Taiwan, and Scotland repeatedly stress a consistent set of concerns.
"I feel as though our country has lost its democracy," said one caller in New York.
"Our politicians are for sale to the highest corporate bidder," said another in New Mexico.
"I was arrested for standing a block away from a Bush fund-raiser with a 'No War for Oil' sign," said another in South Carolina.
A caller in Dallas told the story of how his master's degree in engineering and service as an officer in the army didn't qualify him to compete with the engineer in India who took his job. "I've been unemployed for 42 months," he said, "although I'm still looking every day for a good job."
A pervasive concern is sweeping across our nation, a fear that both the economic American dream is slipping away while the ideals of American democracy are under an organized and powerful attack.
Both worker productivity and wages increased 108 and 101 percent, respectively, between 1947 and 1973, the golden years of the American middle class. Since then, though, many of the key indicators of a functioning democracy have been eroding in America.
One of the most significant indicators is that from the time Ronald Reagan became president until today the income of the middle class in real dollars has declined 10 percent (adjusted for inflation) while the minimum wage has fallen 17 percent (also adjusted for inflation). Worker productivity went up 52 percent--Americans are working harder and working longer hours--but pay has fallen, causing middle-class debt to explode, doubling in just the past two decades.2
Today's middle class spends 21 percent less on clothes than 20 years ago (cheap imports), while an unprecedented 80 percent of homeowners in low- and moderate-income categories spend more than half their income on housing.3 Bankruptcies are at an all-time high, and half of all people filing are doing so because of devastating medical bills (another 40 percent file because they're wiped out by job loss or divorce).4
Democracy in America is eroding. And with it are going many of the essential rights that democracy is supposed to ensure.
Instead of democracy--government for, by, and of the people--we increasingly have "corporatism"--a term that Benito Mussolini invented. He defined it as a merger of state and corporate power, and in the past few decades it's been adopted as a guiding tenet of conservative thought. The effect has been a steady shift of wealth away from the middle class and into corporate coffers and large investor portfolios, combined with a dramatic loss of the freedoms on which this country was founded:
*The First Amendment to the Constitution clearly states: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people to peaceably assemble to petition the government for redress of grievances." Nonetheless, George W. Bush has, with virtually no mention in the mainstream corporate media, ordered his Secret Service to direct local police departments to create "free speech zones," out of the view of the press and sometimes as much as a mile away from the events at which he speaks. All persons carrying anti-Bush signs or showing an inclination to speak out against Bush are herded into these zones--often at gunpoint--and those who refuse to go have been arrested in nearly a dozen states.
*The Fourth Amendment says: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. . . ." Yet in 2003 parts of PATRIOT II were passed that give the government the right to search through your doctor's records, credit card records, pawnshop records, bank records, and any other information about you from any source it deems relevant--without a warrant, without a court's order or oversight, and without informing you. This extraordinary assault on the Bill of Rights was unnoticed by the press, buried in a 2004 Intelligence Authorization bill, and signed into law without fanfare by George W. Bush.
*Legislation introduced and pending in 2003 and 2004, supported by the Bush administration, would extend the death penalty to crimes related to terrorism while redefining terrorism to include crimes "against commerce." Some suggest that, at least in theory, you can now be put to death for any interference with corporate activity. Additionally, under these various legislative provisions, the ACLU notes that the government would have the ability to defy the Eighth Amendment and deny bail, and to defy the Fifth Amendment and "compel testimony."5
*The PATRIOT Act itself includes a broad reduction in citizen privacy rights and the presumption of innocence.
Bad for democracy, good for giant corporations
In other cases, the move away from democratic principles doesn't involve just suppression of fundamental freedoms; the government is being substantially reprioritized to serve business, with less and less regard for the impact this has on citizens.
*Our unemployment statistics don't count how many people are unemployed; they leave out a large number of jobless:
*If you're unemployed for more than 18 months, the government eliminates your eligibility for unemployment benefits and no longer counts you in the unemployment statistics--even if your family is starving.
*Worse, if your career simply disappears to India, your education is down the drain, you lose your life savings, and you finally give up and take a job at a quarter of your former pay, you don't count as unemployed at all.
*Lobbyists roam freely in the halls of Congress and even write the specific language for much (if not most) of our nation's legislation. In early American history it was a crime for businesses to interfere with the citizens' legislation--and it's still illegal in many democratic nations. Meanwhile, average citizens, unable to get their elected representatives on the phone, rightly feel that their politicians are not there for them but are instead for sale to the highest bidder.
*Executives from regulated industries frequently head up the agencies that regulate them. Examples:
*Because of industries being their own regulators, the number two person in the USDA responsible for managing the Mad Cow situation was the head lobbyist for the Cattlemen's Association. And the Bush administration vetoed an appropriation to increase the inspection of beef. Up until the actual outbreak in January 2004, only one-tenth of "downer cows" (cows with symptoms of Mad Cow) were inspected.
*When new overtime rules were introduced in 2004, the White House touted how much increased overtime laborers would get. Meanwhile, the Department of Labor published guidelines to employers on how to avoid paying any more. Example: "Lower the base wage."
*In January 2004, an ad for a "Margaritas and Mulligans" get-together at a posh Arizona resort invited industry executives to play golf with Republican lawmakers, for a fee of $3,000 each, to help plan the changes "for the upcoming rewrite of the Clean Air Act." For $5,000, industry executives could support the keynote speech by Interior deputy secretary J. Steven Griles, the man responsible for overseeing the nation's public lands so coveted by oil, gas, mining, and timber industries, and himself a former lobbyist for the coal and oil industries.
*Profits of "managed-care" health-care providers such as HMOs are at record levels, while according to the American Medical Association (AMA), over 43 million Americans have no medical insurance of any sort.
*This is a true crisis of human well-being, because under today's rules, it's often impossible to get health care if you don't have insurance.
*For-profit hospitals have succeeded in putting uninsured people who can't pay their bills into jail.
*Prescription drug costs have risen dramatically.
*The very heartbeat of our democracy--our vote--has been turned over to fewer than a half-dozen large corporations with conspicuous conservative political connections. These corporations assert that voters have no right to examine the programs that run voter machines, even though many of the machines have repeatedly failed security and reliability tests.
*From mercury in the air to arsenic in the water to logging of old-growth forests to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, our environment is in a crisis exacerbated by conservative policies. Global warming poses one of the greatest threats to humankind, the average person has over a hundred detectable carcinogenic chemicals in his bloodstream, and one in three of us will get cancer in our lifetimes.
*Thomas Jefferson said, "Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost." In that spirit, until the eras of Reagan and Clinton, radio and television stations were largely required to be locally owned and operated in ways that served their local communities. These protections are being stripped from us, as Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) chronicles: "Big media spent nearly $11 million from 1996-1998 to defeat bills mandating free airtime for candidates." At the same time, FAIR notes, "broadcasters earned at least $771 million from political TV ads in 2000, almost double the 1996 revenues."6
Things like this could not happen if the government's priority was to protect its people. President Grover Cleveland (1885-1889) said, "As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel. Corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people's masters."7 He was right about corporate dominance during the Gilded Age, and it's happening again today.
The loss of democratic participation
There's plenty of evidence that people are giving up: only half of eligible voters actually register and vote.8 Nonvoters typically say lawmaking is already in the hands of special interests that are far bigger than them, so their own preference is largely irrelevant.
This is tragic in the nation that gave birth to modern democracy. According to the Federal Election Commission's website, some of those who learned from us do far better: in Australia, 96 percent of those registered to vote actually show up and cast a ballot.
The rise of the new corporate feudal lords
We're watching the transformation of many democracies around the world into what are essentially feudal states. They are not feudal in the sense that people are wheeling hand-pulled carts through muddy streets as in medieval days, but that the government increasingly runs solely for the benefit of those with the greatest wealth. And it makes little difference to the ordinary citizen whether the wealthiest are old-style feudal lords or today's very large corporate interests.
Government's activities are increasingly oriented toward business and away from advancing democracy. Worse, we increasingly see that the government's reports to us on unemployment, inflation, and other key issues can be juggled (and actively are) to conceal from us the truth about the well-being of our society.
In just the past 50 years, the United States has inspired a boom in democracies worldwide. This trend was most powerfully influenced by our highly visible participation in the United Nations and our stand there against dictatorships. Yet in a 2002 report, the UN Development Program found it necessary to report that its old mentor the United States was in trouble, by the very standards we taught them: "Imbalances in resources and political power often subvert the principle of one person, one voice, and the purpose of democratic institutions [in the United States]."9
It's a remarkable commentary when the UN, to whom we taught democracy, and where we once served as role model, says political power often subverts the principle of one person, one voice in America.
The report went on to say, "One critical problem is money in politics, which subverts democratic institutions when it exerts undue influence on who gets elected and what legislators vote for." They cited the example of Enron corrupting politics.
And, the report observed: "Presidential candidates in the 2000 U.S. election spent $343 million on their campaigns, up from $92 million in 1980. Including spending by political parties [for so-called 'issue ads,' which circumvent the legal spending limits], more than $1 billion was probably spent on the 2000 campaigns. In 2001 Michael Bloomberg spent a record $74 million to become New York City's mayor, the equivalent of $99 a vote. His main opponent spent $17 million." The losing candidate had 47 percent of the vote, at a "cost" of just $25 a vote; he was outspent 4:1 and barely lost.
The UN report concludes: "As campaign costs rise, so does the risk that politicians will be disproportionately influenced by business interests. In the 2000 U.S. election cycle, corporations gave $1.2 billion in political contributions--about 14 times the already considerable amount contributed by labour unions and 16 times the contributions of other interest groups. Although many European countries have more stringent limits on corporate funding, similar patterns emerge in many other countries. In India large corporations provided 80% of the funding for the major parties in 1996."
The three threats
"Corporatism" is one of three threats to democracy:
Muslim and Christian religious extremists, both wanting to limit individual freedoms in favor of theocracy (government by their religious standards).
The deceptive, pseudo conservative corporatist influencers and their supporters, who seek changes in our laws that would take us away from democracy and toward government of, by, and for corporations--with complete disregard for the freedom and well-being of our citizens.
A presidency that is oriented toward personal power, not the good of the country. Masterfully manipulating television images, and openly allowing unelected corporate friends into the halls of power while suppressing dissent, several recent conservative presidents have spent unprecedented amounts of borrowed money, while simultaneously cutting funding from education and social programs and running up the biggest deficits in history.
But citizens are not without power. This has happened before, democracy has recovered (and even improved--we've freed slaves and women), and we can--we must--take it back again.
This raises the question, what is democracy? Does it really make a difference? If freedoms and choice are curtailed, does it really make that much difference?